As featured on Happiest Blog
You’re here. You actually made it. By some out-of-body sorcery, you didn’t press snooze this time. You don’t remember the drive exactly and you’re starting to regret your final vote in the comfortable vs spandex approved underwear debate from earlier that morning, but here you are, actually standing inside the gym. You take in the view, ready to turn all the faces familiar. “Hello, new family. It’s me, your new sibling in health. I’m sure we will be swapping spin class horror stories soon enough.” You lock in on a machine and set up your battle station: magazine, water, headphones, playlist, sweat towel, and some extra bobby-pins, just in case.
It begins. The tread moves, the sweat feels like it begins too soon, but, that’s to be expected. You try to focus on your music and the latest article on ‘How Your Taste in Movies Predicts Your Next Job!’
Right as you begin to develop what you pray is a ‘rhythm,’ you feel it. That pain. It’s right where it always is. It starts with a whisper, an almost hushed sting. You continue, refocusing on music, on your to-do list, on your pride in just being in a place of health instead of still in bed. But the pain starts to get louder. It’s making any semblance of a cadence almost impossible. “Ok, think, how do we battle this? Think Remember the Titans, think Rudy, think of your inspirational Pinterest board! ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’ Oh yeah, that’s good. This is all my weakness just resisting and screaming it’s way out. Or, ‘diamonds are only made under extreme pressure.’ Yeah, this is just the pressure I need to make myself into the diamond I’m supposed to be. Yeah, that’s good.” Make the music louder, drown out the thought of pain. Take a bigger drink of water, increase speed.
But the pain doesn’t leave. It’s getting so loud. You yell and scream internally, “How dare you, body! I am here, trying to make you better and all you do is betray me with pain.” You debate vigorously, is this pain or is this mental weakness? The pain feels real, but is it real enough? Eventually, you call it a draw. You went further than the pain wanted, but you didn’t go as far as you had envisioned.
So, what’s true? Where does discomfort begin and pain end? Do they meet up? Are they friends? Enemies? Is it just semantics? With so many voices battling internally at once, it tends to feel like we’re one honest conversation away from a multiple personality diagnosis. With all of the pressure to ‘listen to your body,’ which voice are we supposed to choose?
Your Brain Tells Stories, Your Body Tells the Truth
Physiologically speaking, an emotional response in the brain – joy, sadness, grief, excitement, surprise, anger, etc. have a true live span of 90-seconds or less. Ninety seconds is the longest an initial emotional reaction has in the chemistry of our brain, followed therefore in turn by the body. So, what creates the hours of tears we are capable of welling up after a touching commercial, or those anxious butterflies that can create nausea for an entire day preceding an important business meeting? It’s the stories we tell. We feel sad, it feels good to feel sad, so we tell more sad stories to fuel our original sad feeling. We are euphorically happy while spending time with our best friends, so as to not lose that joyous feeling, we spend nearly the entire time reminiscing on past stories that remind us of more and more joy. Stories are how we fuel our entire day, from what we choose to wear in the morning to how interact with strangers. Think of the last person you observed across from you at the coffee shop. What sort of story did you create about their life?
How does this help us in our relationship with pain in our body? Most of us are functioning from, therefore telling stories from a part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This is also referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response of the body, aka stress. This means our stories are coming from a place of slight, if not distinct anxiety. Our body, left to it’s own devices without the worriedly fueled sympathetic response would be happily functioning on what is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This side of the autonomic nervous system is also referred to as homeostasis. It does not mean you are happy or elated all of the time, it merely means you’re…well, you. You’re ok. No stress, no lies, just you.
The difference between our mind, the storyteller, and our body, is the body has no reason for stories. It does not benefit from weaving a tale of ‘what-if’s’ and ‘if only’s.’ The body has no reason to lie to us. Why would it? The body will always and has always just wanted to feel and function well. Homeostasis is it’s constant goal. So, how do we get back to baseline, back to parasympathetic, back to self?
So, now we know there are really only two opposing voices, our body: the truth, and our brain: the storyteller. How do we then separate the truth from the stories? One of the reasons Yoga gets credit for being a connected and mindful physical practice is because it has honed in on a tool for this truth detecting: breathing.
Take a seat, right here, right now. Sit up tall without straining your back or shoulders. Close your eyes. Go ahead, no one will notice, it’s just for a moment.
S – Simply stop. Just pause right here, right now. Don’t ‘do’ anything for just this quick moment.
T – Take a deep breath. Not just a deep breath, but a yoga breath. Try exhaling like you are fogging up a mirror with your mouth closed. It will make this soft humming, Darth Vader-ish sound in the back of your throat. Now try inhaling like you are gasping with your mouth closed. Try this 3-5 times. Slow your breath down this way, perhaps breathing in for 5-6 seconds, breathing out for 6-7 seconds.
O – Observe. With your eyes still closed, pay attention. Observe what sounds you can hear, and try not to tell stories about them. Observe what you can feel. Observe your body, start with your toes and work all the way up to your head. Notice everything you can about your body without getting stuck in the ‘why.’ Observe your mind. Where does your mind try and go. What story does it want to tell right away?
P – Permission. Grant yourself permission for whatever you need. Do you need to take a break? Do you need permission to STOP again? Do you need permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling in your body or mind without guilt or judgment?
Do you feel different? Perhaps more at baseline than when you started? This is how we can start to develop a relationship with the truth, therefore a relationship with our body. We practice slowing down the stories so the truth has a stage to speak from.
This means, when you’re running, lifting weights, in your yoga practice, or dancing, if you feel something cue in your body, take a moment and STOP. Think, “is this a story my brain is telling me because it’s uncomfortable or stressed? Or is this my body trying to tell me the truth?” “Am I using my body as a weapon for my brain’s bullying? Or am I using my body as a tool to progress into more awareness, more connectedness, back to homeostasis, back to self?”
In the end, our body never victimizes us to it’s own betraying demise. Also, our brain doesn’t have to be the author of sad endings and horror stories. We always win if we merely practice listening to the truth and tell better stories.
Taylor, J. B. (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Viking
Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition.
Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Physiological Changes
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a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic
nervous system. Jerath, Ravinder et al.
Medical Hypotheses , Volume 67 , Issue 3 , 566 - 571